Four Suggestions for Writing Better Business Correspondence

. 4 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Four Suggestions for Writing Better Business Correspondence

Honoring the humanness of the recipient

The best class I ever took about business correspondence was given by Derek Van Bever at the old Corporate Executive Board (CEB). In the class, I and the roomful of inside salespeople – one or two years out of college – listened with rapt attention as one of the dons of the company, now a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the excellent book, Stall Points, rhapsodized on communication.

Our job was to schedule appointments for our managers – outside sale people – with senior executives at very large companies – typically Fortune 500 or Global 2000 organizations. Those outside salespeople then tried to sign up the senior executives for one of our membership-network research programs. CEB had research programs for CFOs, heads of human resources, heads of marketing, heads of sales, and so on. As you might imagine, the CFO at Amazon or Ford or Toyota or ExxonMobil or Walmart has multiple appointments nearly every minute of every day. Scheduling these appointments required persistence (“No is only the opening salvo toward getting a “Yes!” I tell my kids), creativity and empathy.

In that class with Derek, I took away a few lessons.

Honor the Past Relationship or History of Communications

I find it striking how many emails I receive that simply launch into the person’s or company’s offering, without even waving at our prior relationship. For example, if the executive had been a member of a CEB program at their current company or previous company or role, we should thoughtfully acknowledge that history in our communication. If the executive had declined a meeting two months ago, we should note it and offer a legitimate reason why we had decided to reach back out – we should answer the question, what has changed that may make a meeting interesting now.

Derek showed examples of how we could sensitively and elegantly address even tough history. And he confessed that in a few, extremely rare instances, CEB had dropped the ball, and we simply shouldn’t reach out to that executive. In those cases, ‘honoring the past’ meant recognizing a burned bridge or at least knowing a lot of time had to pass before any outreach was appropriate.

Don’t Be Breathless. Don’t State the Obvious.

Today, I am not a senior executive. Still, I am busy and have lots of personal and professional commitments. I can’t stand when someone reaches out to me for a call or meeting and says, “I know you are so busy.”

It’s stale. It’s cliched. It states only the obvious. It’s breathless. It’s a waste of words.

The worst sin - it wastes the recipient’s time.

Be Forthright.

Make your request. Don’t hide it. If you want 15 minutes of my time, state it. Don’t make the recipient wonder why you reached out.

Also, write clearly and directly about what’s in it for me in your request. Bring up a new data point I probably haven’t seen. Note something smart that someone I probably care about said (not Steve Jobs – generic, dated and I run a trucking company, so I don’t care about Steve Jobs). Give me a supremely unique way of looking at one vital aspect of my world. Catch my attention.

The adage “Be brief. Be memorable. Be gone.” resonates here.

Honor the Past Relationship or History of Communications, Again.

So many business letters and especially emails end, “Best, [Signed]”. Best? What, you’ve sent me one email and now we’re BFFs? Nope, no way.

Here’s an example. A moment ago I received an email that ended, “Have a great week! Carol”. Well,  it’s raining, my car broke down, and my dog Lucky has cancer. So, Carol, it ain’t gonna be a great week. Go away.

The ending does not honor Carol’s and my past communications, which are…nonexistent. This was Carol’s first email to me. Her first outreach to me ends breathlessly, stupidly. She doesn’t know me except as a faceless name in her CRM. She obviously doesn’t care whether I have a great week – not even in a woo-woo, the-universe-wants-you-to-have-a-great-week way.

Far better, she should have ended:

“I’d welcome the chance to speak with you for a few minutes about how we can help you help your clients. Please reply if we can schedule a 15-minute call. Regards, Carol”

This ending would have been truthful. The “Regards” would have contained a modicum of wise formality and thus respected our current lack of a relationship.

In the 22+ years since taking Derek’s class, the business world has headed in an increasingly informal direction. Texts, marketing blast emails, robocalls punctuate our days and lives like never before. Almost all waste our time and they create that cliched word of today’s cliched words: noise.

Respecting these four lessons, I’ve found recipients of my communications far more open to starting a dialogue than I’d have imagined. They thank me for not “showing up and throwing up.” They appreciate the thought and care demonstrated. They note that my emails, letters and handwritten notes do not – could not – have come from a website, robot or AI. They’re appropriately personalized for the relationship the recipient and I have, or don’t have.

They’re written by a human being. Which may be the most important lesson of all.

Thank you to Chinyere Erondu, Jude Klinger and Yi Hui Chan of Foster for their helpful edits.

Images created by Midjourney.